Should Artists Protest?

May 5, 2016

My home state of North Carolina has become the latest target of protesting artists and entertainers. After Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB2 into law, Bruce Springsteen canceled his April 10th concert in Charlotte to “show solidarity”. Comedian Tracy Morgan made a similar move in Mississippi over their Religious Accommodations Act. In March, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal experienced heavy pressure from entertainment companies like Disney, AMC, and Apple to veto House Bill 757, which he did earlier this month.

Policy aside for a moment, perhaps a more foundational question is whether artists and entertainers have any business influencing legislation in the first place. Many Christians would rather Springsteen et al kept their opinions to themselves, arguing that it is unfair for artists to use their celebrity status to influence legislators or public opinion.

What we need to realize is that it’s not so much whether artists will influence the culture and politics, but how and which artists. Christians need to take a wide-eyed look at how they approach art and entertainment—realizing that they have voluntarily pigeonholed their artists in a subculture that robs them of culture-shaping influence.

The Arts and Politics

[livefree] For some reason, the recent boycotts feel novel to us, but historically America has been no stranger to artistic protest. For instance, everyone recognizes Ben Franklin’s famous “Join, or Die” political cartoon. This piece of art was meant to influence colonial leaders and citizens in the fight against Great Britain.

Negro spirituals are a distinctly American art form. They promoted solidarity among oppressed slaves and held a megaphone to their cry for liberty. “Go Down, Moses” was both a song of hope for blacks and a song of protest to the nation at large: “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

[pcua] Poetry, painting, song, and other art forms were given by God to connect with the humanity on a visceral level. In the past, Christians recognized the importance of using art to grip the heart of men. Protestant Martin Luther is a prime example. In the pamphlet “Passional Christi und Antichristi” (1521), he included drawings by Lucas Cranach the Elder that juxtaposed images of Jesus driving moneychangers out of the Temple and the Pope selling indulgences to the poor in the church.

Art is meant to influence all areas of life—including politics. Consider that the Old Testament prophets often addressed their culture and leaders about justice, morality, corruption, sin, and idolatry through poetry. As Christians, we should not retreat from artistic engagement. Instead, we ought to see art as another opportunity to recognize and shine forth the glory of God.

Swaying the People

Perhaps nothing better embodies grassroots appeal like folk art. In particular, folk music shaped the American political climate of the 1960s. Artists like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and their forerunner Woody Guthrie wrote songs that expressed the narrative of the common man. Dylan didn’t sway hearts with pitch-perfect or well-articulated harmonica solos. No, it was the way his lyrics expressed what everyone was thinking: “How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?/The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Folk music is not the only grassroots art form. Jazz artist Billie Holliday used her gentle vibrato to awaken nightclubs across America to the horrors of lynching in the South. As much a protest as an appeal to the American conscience, she soberly crooned “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…” Additionally, punk rock of the 1970-80s connected with the populous, expressing the angst of a generation toward government corruption and cultural hypocrisy. In recent years, comedy mainstay Saturday Night Live has unashamedly broadcast its opinions concerning various political issues into the living rooms of American homes.

Swaying the Powers

At other times, artists have sought to directly influence the powers that be. The recent boycotts in North Carolina could be seen as a kind of performance art—the refusal to perform as an artistic gesture meant to send a message to the governor and legislators. In 1985, dozens of artists like Stevie Wonder, U2, Miles Davis, and Afrika Bambaataa partnered to boycott Sun City in South Africa to protest the government’s horrific Apartheid system.

The profitability of entertainment in America has created an interesting situation in the 21st century. Artists are able to write songs, make movies, and use their celebrity status to influence leaders. However, now entertainment corporations bulging with American dollars are able to influence politicians, as well.

When the Religious Liberty Bill made its way to Georgia Governor Deal’s desk, Disney threatened to end its relationship with the state. At the time it was filming Guardians of the Galaxy 2 at Pinewood Studios outside Atlanta. But the kicker came when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell implied that this law could affect Atlanta’s chances at hosting the Super Bowl in 2019 and 2020.

Consider this: the Seidman Research Institute reported, “Super Bowl XLIX…produced a gross economic impact of $719.4 million in the [Phoenix] region.” That’s quite a lot of heft the NFL has to throw around. The entertainment industry has realized its financial influence on local economies has given it enormous power to effect political leaders. 

Looming Questions

One easy response among Christians is to say, “Shame on Bruce Springsteen, the NFL, and Disney. They should butt out of politics.” But before we do, let us remember all of the times we tuned into Monday Night Football, went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens five times in theaters, or attended one of The Boss’ concerts. There are consequences to becoming an entertainment-driven culture. We voluntarily gave these entities our money and attention.

However, the deeper issue is the almost complete absence of art made by Christians from the public conversation. Where are all of the Christian artists? They are locked in an echo chamber—a place where evangelicals huddle together and cheer themselves on, ignoring the rest of the culture. Many of us are satisfied with songs, movies, paintings, and books that cement us in our parochialism.

What does it say about American Christianity that our most lauded artistic protest is God’s Not Dead 2? I’ll leave that for your consideration.

Christian artists and entertainers have almost no influence outside of Christian subculture. Perhaps this is part of the reason Christians are so outraged by the situation in North Carolina (And yes, also because there is an obvious cultural double-standard at play). We need Christians who make persuasive, heart-moving art. We need Christians who know how to make movies that touch the spirit of the populous. We need songwriters who know how to express the pain and hope of a community.

There are a few out there. Certain hip-hop artists have realized the necessary shift. Artist Propaganda writes in his song “Lofty”:

So we make lofty art
See the presence of good art will unconsciously refine a community
And poor art will do an incalculable harm
Only accomplished in the light of His excellency

According to Propaganda, poor art actually pulls apart a community, while good art is part of promoting God’s glory in society. So often, the Christian community elevates poor art or settles for the trite and mundane because it is at least biblically tolerable. However, there is something to be said for art that is both true and excellent, both honorable and lovely, both just and praiseworthy, both pure and commendable (Phil 4:8).

Look for those kinds of artists. Buy that kind of art. Support Christians who are endeavoring to enter the public conversation. May we not be content to fuss on the sideline. Sure, we need to engage in public debate and policy battles. However, the battle for the culture must engage the deepest parts of man, and good art will do just that.

Chad Ashby

Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife and three boys. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and blogs at After Math. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24